The Cable

The NSA and the State Dept. Go to War ... With Each Other

New revelations that the U.S. has been eavesdropping on world leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel aren't simply straining Washington's relationship with Berlin. They're also sparking an increasingly public fight between the State Department and the NSA, with the nation's spies and the nation's diplomats trading shots about who's responsible for the mess.

"This is a pretty serious embarrassment for the U.S., and as top officials try to protect their agencies and their reputations, they are not sticking with their talking points," a former senior U.S. official told The Cable.

Secretary of State John Kerry touched off the furor when he said some of the NSA's overseas surveillance efforts -- which also included tapping into tens of millions of calls in France and Spain -- had been carried out without the Obama administration's knowledge or explicit approval. The remarks highlighted what appears to the White House's emerging strategy for dealing with widespread public fury over the programs: blame it on the NSA.

"The president and I have learned of some things that have been happening in many ways on an automatic pilot, because the technology is there and the ability is there," Kerry told a conference in London. "In some cases, some of these actions have reached too far and we are going to try to make sure it doesn't happen in the future."

General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, responded by putting responsibility for the spying efforts squarely on the State Department itself. He said diplomats around the world were asking for information about the "leadership intentions" of top foreign officials, and that his agency was simply trying to respond to those intelligence requests.

Alexander, according to a report in The Guardian, was responding to a series of sharp-edged questions from James Carew Rosapepe, a former American ambassador to Romania. Rosapepe had asked the general to explain how U.S. national security interests justified the NSA's spying efforts on "democratically elected leaders and private businesses."

"That is a great question, in fact as an ambassador you have part of the answer. Because we the intelligence agencies don't come up with the requirements. The policymakers come up with the requirements," Alexander said. "One of those groups would have been, let me think, hold on, oh: ambassadors."

This isn't the first time that the Obama administration has seen high-level disagreements play out in public, of course. In December 2009, President Obama announced plans to send tens of thousands of reinforcements to Afghanistan but stressed that they were being sent to carry out a narrow counter-terrorism mission targeting al-Qaeda terrorists, not a broader counter-insurgency mission. Within days, top military officials began to publicly and privately say they were going to undertake a counter-insurgency approach anyway.

The increasingly-heated NSA debate is different, however, because it risks doing long-term damage to key White House relationships with foreign leaders like Merkel as well as long-term damage to the relationship between the administration and the spies it entrusts with protecting the nation from new terror attacks.

Foreign Policy reported earlier this month that senior NSA officials, including Alexander, were angry at the White House for failing to do more to defend the spy agency from criticism of its surveillance efforts on Capitol Hill and in foreign capitals. The administration, meanwhile, has seemed blind-sided by the continuing revelations about secret NSA spying programs at home and abroad.

The White House had two basic choices for how to respond: argue that Obama knew about the programs and approved them, which risked further infuriating key American allies, or say that he was unaware of the NSA's efforts, which risked painting a picture of a surprisingly out-of-touch commander in chief. For the moment, the administration seems to have settled on the latter.

P.J. Crowley, a former State Department spokesman, said the administration has had a hard time settling on a PR strategy because it doesn't know how many more disclosures are yet to come, or precisely what will be in them.

"There's a drip, drip, drip that makes categorical statements in response to the latest news report risky," he told The Cable. "At what point do you have a sense that you know what you're dealing with so you can start to repair and rebuild? From a diplomatic standpoint, you can only start those repairs when the shovel stops digging a deeper hole."

Crowley helped craft the State Department's response to the initial WikiLeaks disclosures, but said that was relatively easy compared to the ongoing disclosures of once-classified NSA documents by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

"During WikiLeaks we had months to assess the damage and see what was in the archive," he said. "For the moment, with Snowden, it's hard to know if we're closer to the end or the beginning."

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The Cable

Dianne Feinstein Is Still a Friend of the NSA After All

It turns out Dianne Feinstein's bark is worse than her bite.

On Thursday, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee ushered in a new bill for reforming the surveillance practices of the National Security Agency that retains the structure of its controversial bulk telephone metadata program while adding modest reporting and oversight requirements.

The bill, which places much lighter restrictions on the NSA compared to a rival reform effort by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VA) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), comes just days after Feinstein sent shockwaves through the intelligence community with a public scolding of the NSA's surveillance of foreign leaders. 

"It is abundantly clear that a total review of all intelligence programs is necessary so that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are fully informed as to what is actually being carried out by the intelligence community," Feinstein said Monday.

Given her reputation as a staunch defender of NSA practices and the White House's refusal to stand by collection activities targeting foreign leaders, some in the intelligence community feared a wide-ranging crackdown on the agency.

"We're really screwed now," one NSA official told The Cable. "You know things are bad when the few friends you've got disappear without a trace in the dead of night and leave no forwarding address."

However, today's bill appeared to put some of those concerns to rest by codifying many of the NSA's most controversial policies.

Its key oversight additions include the establishment of criminal penalties of up to 10 years in prison for inappropriately accessing data acquired under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA); new requirements for yearly reports on the number of queries of the NSA's phone metadata database; restrictions on which employees can query the call-records; and the authorization of a representative to appear before the FISA court to "provide independent perspectives" on privacy issues.

Opponents of the bill, which passed by an 11-4 vote, say it does not go far enough in curtailing the NSA's expansive surveillance powers.

"I fought on the committee to replace this bill with real reform, and I will keep working to ensure our national security programs show the respect for the U.S. Constitution that Coloradans tell me they demand," said Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) in a statement.  "The NSA's ongoing, invasive surveillance of Americans' private information does not respect our constitutional values and needs fundamental reform - not incidental changes."

Defenders of the bill said it strikes the right balance between providing the NSA with the tools it needs to keep the country safe while offering privacy safeguards.

"I did vote for the bill," Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told reporters following the vote. "I think it will strengthen oversight of our intelligence activities."

Feinstein agreed, emphasizing the reasons for not placing too many restrictions on the NSA. "Intelligence is necessary to protect our national and economic security, as well as to stop attacks against our friends and allies around the world," she said. "I believe the reforms in this bill are prudent, responsible and meaningful."

At issue, however, is the NSA's lingering ability to collect and retain large amounts of American phone records under its current interpretation of the Patriot Act. "At its core ... the bill endorses the most controversial of the NSA's recently reported activities: the bulk collection of Americans' domestic and international telephone call records," read a statement by the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice.

The bill stands in stark contrast to a separate bill co-sponsored by Sensenbrenner and Leahy called the USA Freedom Act, which explicitly prohibits the bulk collection of Americans' phone records.

"The intelligence committee bill and the USA Freedom Act present two opposing visions of the relationship between law-abiding Americans and the national security state," said Elizabeth Goitein, a co-director of the Brennan Center. "The fundamental question is: should the government have some reason to suspect wrongdoing before sweeping up Americans' most personal information to feed into its databases? Leahy and Sensenbrenner say yes; Feinstein says no."

Others see less of a stark choice between the two bills. "There are a lot of good protections in the Senate bill," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told The Cable. "But I would go further and call for a restructuring of the metadata program so that telecommunications providers hold onto their own data rather than the NSA retaining it. There's no technological obstacle to retaining data this way."